By Donald Wittkowski
For starters, there were six women who meticulously covered themselves in 20,000 white cotton balls, painted their noses black, donned a pair of cute, fuzzy ears and dubbed themselves the “Serta Sheep.”
Then there was the pope impersonator who was resplendent in a flowing red and gold robe, accented by a papal-style headdress. Instead of sipping on sacramental wine, he hoisted a bottle of beer as he toasted the raucous crowd.
Also drawing plenty of laughs was a guy adorned in fake boobs, a white wig, wire-rimmed glasses, a pink cardigan sweater and a long black skirt that barely hid his hairy legs. Responding to the quizzical glances cast in his direction, he told everyone that he was pretending to be Mrs. Doubtfire, the cross-dressing movie character outrageously played by Robin Williams.
All of this zaniness – and a heck of a lot more – served as the backdrop Saturday afternoon for the madcap annual Polar Bear Plunge that unfolded on the beaches of Sea Isle City. Thousands of self-proclaimed polar bears, many in costumes and others clad in bathing suits, charged into the chilly surf as a huge crowd of spectators roared with approval.
In previous years, the plungers had to contend with February’s typical freezing temperatures and howling, seashore winds. This year, though, a warm front had boosted the air temperature to a relatively balmy 56 degrees by the time the masses jumped into the ocean at 2 p.m.
“I’ve been doing this for 10 years. Today, it’s not bad,” said Rachel Burcaw, a 22-year-old Sea Isle resident who was attired in a bathing suit. “Last year, it was unbelievably cold. My body was black, blue and orange. I was the whole rainbow.”
Despite the mild air temperature, the ocean remained a nippy, 42.8 degrees, according to the Sea Isle City Beach Patrol.
Among the diehards marching into the surf was a bare-chested Tom Robinson, who carried a large American flag attached to a pole. Robinson, a veteran Polar Bear participant, painted his face blue Saturday and called himself the “Blue Man.” He summed up his plunge in two words.
“It’s cold,” he said, as he headed for the beach soaking wet.
The 70-year-old Robinson, though smiling, expressed some disappointment that he could not claim the title as the oldest plunger.
“I thought I had a shot at being the oldest person here,” said Robinson, of Philadelphia. “But I checked things out on the internet and saw that one woman who was doing this was 71. So, I guess that means I’ll have to keep coming back until I’m the oldest one.”
Organizers originally estimated that about 2,000 people would take the plunge, but it appeared the crowd was much larger. Katherine Custer, Sea Isle’s public relations director, said she believed it was the largest turnout in at least 10 years.
“The weather was a big contributor,” Custer said of the spring-like conditions. “In the last couple of years, it was so bitterly cold.”
Now in its 23rd year, the plunge is the centerpiece of Sea Isle’s Polar Bear Weekend celebration. An estimated 50,000 to 60,000 visitors are expected to pour into the beach town this weekend, the equivalent of a holiday crowd during the peak summer tourism season.
“It’s just like the Fourth of July,” City Councilman William Kehner noted.
Many of the local businesses, normally closed for the winter, reopen for Polar Bear Weekend to capitalize on the surge in tourism. Coinciding with the extended Presidents Day holiday weekend, the Polar Bear festivities attract visitors from throughout the Northeast for a weekend of partying, dining and shopping.
On Saturday, the city’s parking lots were full, the downtown streets were teeming with revelers and the Promenade resembled a busy, summer day. The beaches between 38th and 40th streets overflowed with plungers and spectators for the big event.
The festivities continue Sunday with the Polar Bear Run and Walk for Autism, which gets underway at noon at John F. Kennedy Boulevard and the Promenade. At 3 p.m., there will be a baggo tournament at the LaCosta Lounge entertainment complex at the corner of JFK Boulevard and Landis Avenue.
LaCosta, the social and entertainment epicenter for the crowds, staged a Polar Bear costume contest as a prelude to the plunge. The contestants were called to the stage to strut their stuff amid cheers and applause from the high-energy audience.
George Bogan, 45, of Langhorne, Pa., dressed up as the pope. As a comical touch, he wore a pair of sunglasses and saluted the crowd by raising a bottle of Miller Lite.
“I get asked for a lot of pictures and a lot of autographs,” Bogan said of the reaction to his papal outfit.
Six women from Sea Isle came costumed at the “Serta Sheep.” One of the “sheep,” Jennifer Wilson, 49, explained that 20,000 cotton balls were used to make the elaborate get-ups.
“We’re just crazy,” Wilson said of her group. “I love being creative and having different things to do.”
And then there was 24-year-old Kyle Doorley, who stood out as a Mrs. Doubtfire clone. Doorley, of West Chester, Pa., was part of a group that paid tribute to the late Robin Williams by dressing up as characters from some of his movies.
Doorley couldn’t resist sharing some Williams-like zingers while parading around in his old lady-ish costume. At one point, he told a male observer, “If you got down on one knee and proposed, I really wouldn’t be offended.”
If you think that was funny, a few minutes later, Doorley, as Mrs. Doubtfire, took the stage and began twerking in front of the boisterous crowd.